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Silver conviction just more evidence of Albany corruption

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver,

Former New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, exits a federal courthouse in Manhattan after being found guilty on all counts in his corruption trial, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. Credit: Charles Eckert

Add Sheldon Silver's name to the list of those convicted of wrongdoing while serving the people of New York. While we're at it, let's add the entire culture of the State Legislature to that list.

The Manhattan Democrat and former Assembly speaker was found guilty Monday of seven felonies under federal law, including extortion, money laundering and depriving New Yorkers of his honest services as an elected official. He sold his office, his power and prestige, and the governance and resources of our state, for cash.

Specifically, the jury found that he arranged two grants totaling $500,000 for a cancer researcher who in turn sent mesothelioma patients to the law firm where Silver was "of counsel," netting Silver almost $4 million in legal fees. And he supported rent legislation critical to two major real estate developers in return for their direction of tax business to a law firm that then shared its fees with Silver.

For most Albany observers, the surprise was not that Silver did it, it's that he was charged. Give U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara credit for exposing business as usual.

Silver's counterpart in the Senate until recently, former Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and his son, Adam, are enduring their own federal trial in Manhattan. Skelos, a Republican from Rockville Centre, is accused of helping to secure a $12 million Nassau County contract and trading that against no-show jobs and money for his son. He has pleaded not guilty.

In the appeals of Silver's conviction, the issue will not be whether he betrayed voters. He did. That's been clear since his indictment. The appeal will hinge on legal nuances, not the nature of the behavior. The same is true in Skelos' case, where prosecutors allege that wiretaps show he used his influence for the gain of a family member.

Four of the past five Senate leaders, two Republicans and two Democrats, have landed in the dock on charges of betraying the public trust. Pedro Espada Jr., a Democrat who led the Senate in 2009 and 2010, was convicted of embezzling money from a federally funded health care clinic. Democrat Malcolm Smith, was convicted this year on federal bribery charges after he tried to buy his way onto the New York City mayoral ballot. And Joseph Bruno, the Republican majority leader from 1994-2008, stood convicted of mail fraud before charges were overturned on appeal. Throw in Democrat John Sampson, a former Senate minority leader convicted this year of obstructing justice and lying to FBI agents in connection with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. More than two dozen New York elected officials have been arrested or convicted by authorities since 2008.

But the legislature refuses to ban outside income, or try public campaign financing. It refuses to entertain term limits, or time limits for leadership roles. It refuses to reduce the $150,000 campaign contribution allowed for ghostlike limited liability corporations. It refuses to ban the use of campaign contributions for the legal defense funds of elected officials.

The political system in Albany is guilty. Politicians wield power for their benefit at the expense of the people. Silver's conviction highlights the perversity of the system, but it doesn't answer the real question.

What will it take to change it?